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The exercise of imaginative fantasy was as much an integral part of Leonardo’s mind as the discipline of scientific observation. For the artist, imagination was dependent upon an accurate understanding of observational input – a complete comprehension of the geometry of God’s design. Sensory impressions gained from observation were recombined by the artist’s ‘fantasia’ or imagination, to create new and credible forms

Two skirmishes between horses and foot soldiers
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  • © Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, Polo Museale Veneziano

Two skirmishes between horses and foot soldiers 1503

According to Leonardo, an artist’s ability to conjure up images in his imagination was vitally important. A vivid imagination combined with knowledge of nature would give an artist the “divine power” to fabricate his own universe and the ability to create “fictions that signify great things”.

In this early preparatory study for the Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo conjures up the chaos and terrifying violence of war. It calls to mind his advice to painters to improvise around “the invention made originally in your imagination”. At the top of this sheet, a concentrated implosion of action appears as a tangled knot comprised of figures and horses. Leonardo has not articulated every individual component, but has sought instead to express the narrative force of the composition as a whole. His expressive intentions have been perfectly combined with the motions of his hand to create a powerful evocation of the chaos of battle.

Below are a range of figures individually articulated, shown raising their weapons in dynamic poses. The economy of Leonardo’s technique illustrates his grasp of human anatomy and profound understanding of how the body moves.

In Leonardo's words
You must first represent the smoke from the artillery, mingled in the air with the dust stirred up by the movement of the horses and the combatants…The furthest amidst the swirling mass the combatants are, the less they will be visible and the less difference there will be in their lights and shadows.

This is one of three small sheets of rapid sketches or primi pensieri (“first ideas”) for the lost Battle of Anghiari, painted by Leonardo in the Great Meeting Hall of the Government Palace in Florence.

They are an important record of Leonardo’s intended composition, and probably formed part of the same notebook. Along with partial copies, these tiny drawings are all that now survive of Leonardo’s compositional intentions. The drawing suggests the enormous scale and complexity of the painting, as well as its dramatic impact. Leonardo appears to have concentrated on one central episode in the story of the battle of Anghiari, the Fight for the Standard.

The sketch vividly calls to mind Leonardo’s written account of how to portray battles, contained in his treatise on painting, where he describes how the artist should try to capture the violence and chaos of battle in his paintings, by including the effects of artillery smoke mixed with dust-laden air.

  • Medium Pen and ink with brown wash over traces of stylus
  • Size 14.7 x 15.4 cm
  • Location Galleria dell’Accademia
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